A woman in my entrepreneur networking group asked for advice about being hit on, asked out, or when put in a sleazy position in what is meant to be a business relationship. She wrote that she refused to be silent about it anymore.
This blog is meant to be about finding oneself while traveling & keeping loved ones apprised of my whereabouts. It’s been poorly updated and today’s post is rather off topic, but I feel compelled to share a story I hope gives people confidence to speak up, find solace should they be able to relate, and create consciousness around the impact of words and desire.
Nine months ago for work I traveled to the headquarters of a new business development partner to lead an onboarding session for the staff and set up technology. Due to outdated hardware, I spent about 7 hours on site where multiple suggestive comments were made to me over the course of the day. At first I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting them correctly and gave the benefit of the doubt, so I disregarded the comments and ignored the discomfort. “You speak so clearly. Your voice is like a melody,” was one of the things he said.
‘He’s trying to be nice, maybe he’s just awkward,’ I thought.
When it became blatant that he was interested in more – “We loved having you. I wish you were here more often. You can come anytime” with a wink and suggestive grin – I was paralyzed with disgust. I didn’t know what to say and felt a little scared, so I turned quickly and scurried off.
Immediately after I felt dirty and questioned myself. Was I smart enough, professional enough, meant for this role? Was I dressed inappropriately, did I give signs to “ask for it,” or could I ever be taken seriously? Did I smile too much? Wait, did I hear him correctly? Should I dress plainly from now on? Did I earn this deal because of my pitch or because of ulterior motives?
At the same time my confidence was wavering, I was angry, sad, and distraught. I worked for a startup in the middle of a pivot and this deal was important. ‘I’m so scared to see him again. How will the next interaction go? What if he comes on stronger, what do I say?’ I cared deeply about the startup and competitive as hell I wanted us to make it. What do I do?
I’m lucky that I have great roommates and was able to talk it through with them that night. Talking through it and gaining a male and female perspective of the day was validating and helped clear the stirring in my head. I resolved to not ever let that happen to me again without talking back – “Hey, I bet you mean well but words like that make me uncomfortable and I don’t like them. We have the same goal to boost sales and get more customers – professionally. If clear professionalism can’t be done I’m happy to find a different resource for you.”
The next day I also told the cofounders what had happened in less than 1-2 minutes, clarifying that I was telling them for the purposes of letting them know what my stance was and what messaging I was going to give from now on. I wanted to make clear that I never wanted my ability to do the job be questioned because of my gender. I kept it short because I didn’t want it to be a big deal.
Going into this talk, I was scared they would prevent me from doing sales since the industry was basically men only. I was relieved and full of gratitude when they empathized, confirmed support of my stance & messaging, and found ways for me to continue this project but have less alone time with the partner moving forward. The deal and majority of in-person work was completed by this time, so further interaction needed was minimal. Because I was open about my fears about what they might think about my ability, they made clear that they believed in my skills and professionalism and cared more about standing up for me and what’s right than a deal. That meant a lot to me.
What I learned from this situation is that even if this hasn’t happened to you – it’s good to prepare for it and come up with a sentence or a two to “have in your pocket” in case it does. It’s much harder to say it on the spot when surprised by the need for it. I have always thought of myself as a feminist, strong, well spoken, and quick on my feet. In this situation I was taken back that it was actually happening that I froze.
Although I beat myself up for not speaking up right when it happened, I know I couldn’t have done much differently in that moment because I didn’t have it in me. I hadn’t thought about it before and it’s tricky wording to not come off as dramatic or over reactive when emotionally raging inside.
This type of thing needs to be called out so the other person can learn and be conscious of their impact. Do not reinforce the behavior by ignoring it and letting it slide. We have to educate proper behavior by calling it out. More needs to be done on top of turning away and avoiding it if we want to prevent it from happening again or to others.
If it does happen, talking it out makes such a difference in regaining yourself. If you’re an employee, ensuring your organization has your back and has the same mindset as you is also important. If you’re a business owner, realize that not EVERY sale nor EVERY customer is needed. Also, don’t let this sleazy encounter create doubt about your product/service. It’s about their lack of consideration and excessive pursuit of personal wants, not about you, your skills, or your business.
I feel for that woman in my networking group, and am proud of her for sticking up for herself, turning down work with unworthy people, and for starting discussion around this. This repost was inspired by her, and I hope it inspires you, too.